Yesterday I went for a bike ride with a friend (BU) who met me at the NJ side of the George Washington bridge in NY. We used to ride more often together but lately our schedules haven’t been in sync. As we rode up to Nyack, NY, we discussed various rides we’ve been doing and what our training schedules have been like.
I’ve tapered off to a once-a-week rider this summer (suited up rides). BU has been more intense, gearing up for a sanctioned 24-hour competition in a couple of weeks. (We did one of these rides together three years ago, the summer I had a ball in my throat). As we rode, he told me about his recent trip to Maui and his annual Cycle to the Sun race (from the sea to 10,000 ft). He said he bettered his previous time by 30 minutes this year. And although he hasn’t said it, I know his personal goal for the 24 hour event is 400 miles.
BU is one of the (rare) few who is about gaining, not winning. What others are doing is not important in comparison. Many confuse winning and gaining.
As we rode up 9W towards Nyack, which must be one of the heaviest ridden corridors for cyclist in the country (most serious cyclists from NYC use this route), it’s easy to get bitten by the competition bug. On 9W Saturday and Sunday mornings, cyclists are not out for a leisurely smell-the-roses ride. There is a certain need for speed. Or at least, a need to push. When other cyclists pass you, if you are not careful, the bug bites and you get pulled out of your riding pace. Not good or bad, as there are times when a nudge from a bite is gain promoting. Point is, there are not many sports or activities (maybe running or walking), where, over the course of hours, there are scads of opportunities to defend yourself against the competition bug bite. It’s a microcosm for what affects many of us in much of what we do.
When I ride in Colombia, there is a 3,500 foot climb on the back side of Medellin. It’s a favorite for hundreds of cyclists who prefer an outdoor spin class. Most ride the hill for time. The discussion among cyclists is always about your latest time on “Las Palmas.” It defines how good you are as a cyclist.
I wouldn’t want to argue over the pros and cons of competition, whether it’s good or not, except to say that merit may lie in gaining vs winning. The subtleties may come down to behavior and character. In politics, as in sports, the need to win seems to trump the need for gain. Why would so many top athletes cheat to win? Why do so many politicians focus on winning small battles at the expense of gaining for the whole. Win at almost all cost is something we learn. (You could say that some want to win for economic personal gain, but by cheating, it’s a corrupted gain.)
I don’t mean to imply that the will to win is a not a good thing. It’s only natural to see and know how we rank next to our fellow humans. And to want to do better.
Last year I read an article titled A Truly American Scholar, about the recently deceased James Quinn. He was a popular professor at Chicago, UCLA, Pepperdine, and Boston College, but spent most of his time teaching at Harvard. He taught students to “be enthusiastic over prudence.” One of the things he said about winning, “The will to win might make you forgo the desire for gain. It can be dangerous and, because it cannot be removed from human desires, it needs to be controlled. Here is where character comes in.”
Winning is like a photo. It’s a snapshot in time, where gaining produces broader results. Will winning a short race in cycling make me a better cyclist? Perhaps. But if the goal is gaining better overall long-term health, the answer might not be the same.
I’m a couple of gears slower in the saddle this year than I was a few short years ago. When it seems that most guys and gals are passing me on the 9W corridor, it’s good prudence practice to take out the non-compete bug spray for (mental) protection. The spray has the effect of eating humble pie. A humble pie diet is developed with a taste for gratitude and being thankful that there is any pie at all. I’d better be content that I’m a bit slower then before. There are other not-so-visible factors that come into play when the focus shifts to winning. If I’m going to win, I’d better focus on winning at humble pie. It may be where the gain lies.